More than 70 clergy in New Orleans are currently named in abuse claims, but this is not the first time the Roman Catholic Church has been under fire. Thousands of victims have come forward with horrifying experiences of abuse at the hands of priests and other clergy in the U.S. The sordid history of abuse scandals is a nationwide crisis that has been going on for decades. Each year, more and more claims reveal the depth of the crimes and the church’s controversial response.
Timeline of Priest Abuse
Sexual abuse by clergy is a worldwide issue, but it wasn’t until the mid-80s that the U.S. launched its first criminal trial of priest abuse. Claims began to surface publicly at that time, but the abuse had been going on for years. Since then, victims across the country have named thousands of clergy who abused them, and many victims were given financial settlements both privately and in court.
The spotlight on priest abuse in the 1980s was significant and immediately made headlines; one of the first priests to admit to child sex abuse admitted he assaulted more than 200 boys at the school he taught at just outside Milwaukee. To add fuel to the fire, there was a clear pattern of coverups and poor responses by the church to address the claims.
While many priests who abused children were simply reassigned to other parishes after allegations, some were brought to justice. Such is the case of John Geoghan, a Boston priest who abused around 130 children over a 33-year period. He was found guilty of child molestation in 2002 and sent to prison.
In 2004, a comprehensive survey on priest abuse stated that almost 4,500 American clergy were accused of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002. Conducted for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the results revealed and further confirmed a disturbing history of sex abuse in the U.S. There were 11,000 allegations made in the survey, with priests who had as few as one to more than ten claims against them. While already disturbing, advocates and survivors were skeptical of whether the report fully represented the extent and number of incidents since it wasn’t a legal investigation.
Although the survey was requested by bishops and led the church to further commit to addressing abuse within the organization, many more claims have been made. In 2018, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis settled with 450 abuse survivors for $210 million. It was a huge win for victims.
In 2018, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania found over 300 priests abused 1,000 children over 70 years and that the Roman Catholic Church helped cover up the scandal. It showed the church toned down abuse claims in their reports and even encouraged victims to remain silent.
The most recent scandal in the U.S. is taking place in New Orleans, where more than 70 clergy have been named in the lawsuit. Since the Archdiocese of New Orleans filed for bankruptcy last year, victims have until March 1, 2021, to make a claim for financial compensation.
The Church’s Response to Abuse Claims
History has shown that other clergy knew of the abuse in a lot of cases and helped hide what happened or did very little to address the problem directly. Some church leaders have resigned from their post after proof of their role in covering up abusive clergy’s actions.
Claims were often kept private, with victims being silenced through financial compensation, fear, and therapy provided by the church. Throughout the years, priests accused of abuse and sexual advancements were simply sent to a new position, while others were stripped of their standing. Very few were criminally charged.
Since the emergence of lawsuits against the church, many dioceses have filed for bankruptcy amidst claims. Churches have cited the need for bankruptcy due to the legal process’s financial costs and victim settlements.
Abuse survivors and advocates have been largely against bankruptcy filings because it moves the case to the bankruptcy court and out of the public’s eye. Since a judge is responsible for the verdict, instead of a jury, victims have often felt this move further quiets the abuse and limits the church’s accountability.
However, as shown in 2018, bankruptcy doesn’t necessarily mean the church will pay less to victims; after all, the multi-million-dollar settlement with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was reached in bankruptcy court.
Accused Priests Still Working Around Children
There are serious consequences for people found guilty of sexually abusing children in the US; both federal and state sex offender registries exist, and strict limitations of working around children and disclosure guidelines are in place. Unfortunately, the church’s coverups, combined with little police involvement and quiet settlements outside of court, have allowed credibly accused clergy to continue working with children.
An upside for survivors has been that state law changes now allow victims, who were previously unable to do so due to the statute of limitations, to make claims. And if the last three decades have shown us anything, more victims will see justice for the sex abuse they suffered at the hands of priests.
With the New Orleans March 1, 2021, deadline fast approaching, it’s important to contact an attorney knowledgeable about church sexual abuse cases. The attorneys at Herman Herman & Katz are available to speak with you in confidence. After an initial consultation, you can decide whether you have more questions or if you are prepared to move forward with pursuing legal action. This decision is entirely up to you, and we are simply here to help you make the right decision at the right time. To speak with one of our attorneys, call 844-943-7626 or request a free consultation online now.
Soren E. Gisleson, is a Partner at Herman, Herman & Katz, L.L.C. and attorney advocate for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.